An interview with Abdulkarim Soroush
By Reza Khojasteh-Rahimi
Q. You were one of the first people, after Dr Shariati’s death, to arrive at the house where he was staying and to see his lifeless face before he was ultimately laid to rest. It seems that you’d had an appointment to see him a day later but his death prevented it. I’d like to ask you to begin by telling us about your plans for the appointment that never took place.
A. Dr Shariati left Iran for France and we heard that he intended to travel to Britain although it was still a secret. After a while, we heard from Mr Minachi, who was a close friend of Dr Shariati and who was in Britain at the time, that Shariati had arrived and was staying at a friend’s house. We knew for certain then and, along with Mr Minachi and another friend, we made plans to go and visit him. My intention was just to see him and to introduce myself. I had it in mind to arrange further, longer meetings after that, to discuss some of the key, revolutionary issues of the time, and to benefit from his presence in Britain. Unfortunately, the appointment was deferred to the hereafter and the angel of death didn’t allow it to take place.
Q. Had you never met Dr Shariati before? Did you not know him personally?
A. I didn’t know him personally and I don’t think Dr Shariati knew me or my name. I used to go to his talks and read his works. When I was in Iran, I used to go to the sessions at the Hosseinieh Ershad religious-cultural centre, but I’d never had the opportunity to discuss things with Dr Shariati face-to-face. This is what made me very eager and enthusiastic at the thought of him coming to Britain, because it would give me a rare chance to meet him and to talk to him. In Britain, Muslim and non-Muslim students used to meet regularly and, at these sessions, Shariati’s books used to be discussed. His works had become like text books and they were constantly being discussed. I used to attend these sessions and, in all truth, despite the great enthusiasm for Dr Shariati’s views and the many positive points in his works, I also had some critical views about them. All this made me very eager to see him. But, as I said, our meeting was deferred to the hereafter.
Q. What was the basis of your critical views about Dr Shariati at the time? Didn’t your closeness to the Hojjatieh Society and Mr Halabi himself have a serious impact on your critical views regarding Shariati? Were your criticisms of him at the time based on a traditionalist perspective? And were you, for example, of like mind with Ayatollah Motahhari, who felt that Shariati’s views were open to criticism from the perspective of religious authenticity and religious tradition?
A. To answer your question, I have to go back in my mind to about thirty years ago. At the time, I didn’t know about the late Motahhari’s criticisms of Shariati. Those parts of Motahhari’s criticisms that are available in writing were published after the revolution and they weren’t available to us or to anyone at the time that we’re speaking about. As for the Hojjatieh, it was some years since I’d left it and I didn’t see anything in Dr Shariati’s views that was open to criticism from the perspective of the Hojjatieh anyway; or, at least, I didn’t have any such criticism.
Q. So, what was the basis of your criticism?
A. At the time, when I was in Britain, my mind was full of Islamic philosophy and Western philosophy. In Iran, I’d carried out some studies into Islamic philosophy and I had acquainted myself, as much as possible, with the views of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and, especially, Mulla Sadra. And, in Britain, I was busy reading analytical philosophy and the philosophy of science. If I saw any weakness in the works of Dr Shariati, it was from this perspective; from the perspective of Islamic philosophy and analytical philosophy. I believed that, in his judgments, he sometimes extended and applied ideas in ways that couldn’t be justified philosophically. Of course, I had the exact same criticism of some of the views of the Mojahedin-e Khalq. Don’t judge the Mojahedin then on the basis of today’s Mojahedin; the Mojahedin then were like an untested substance that bore an enticing whiff, and they had many supporters among religious people and Muslims, as well as among the non-religious and non-Muslims. They were seen as a very respectable militant group. Some Mojahedin sympathizers were even of the view that Dr Shariati was favourably disposed towards them and liked their line, and that some of his talks were delivered with a view to praising the martyrdom of some Mojahedin members. At the meetings of student associations in Britain and the European Association of Students, too, the Mojahedin’s views were being raised and discussed. I had a critical view of their Epistemology. And a book of mine, entitled Dialectical Opposition, which was published in Iran, was a collection of several talks that I’d given in Britain in which I’d levelled some criticism, directly, at the Mojahedin’s viewpoint and, indirectly, at Dr Shariati’s views.
This was because Shariati, too, believed in the dialectics of dialectical opposition in his analyses of social and historical events, and he’d said so explicitly in his works. Hence, if you look at that book, you’ll see that, in my criticism of the theory of “dialectical opposition”, I’d absolutely not followed the path that Ayatollah Motahhari had taken. My approach was very different and based on ideas that I’d taken from the philosophy of science and analytical epistemology.
Q. Did your entire criticism of Shariati rest on this basis?
A. My criticisms of Dr Shariati were two-pronged: one, from a philosophical perspective, and the other, from an exegetic perspective. I could see that, in Dr Shariati’s works, there were very few references to the Koran and the Nahj al-Balaghah, and to the ideas of Islamic thinkers as a whole. And I considered this to be a serious weakness and shortcoming in his work, and the polar opposite of the late Mehdi Bazargan, whose works were full of Koranic references and verses. Today, I can say that what Dr Shariati did was to produce a revolutionary Islam. But, at the time, I didn’t have this interpretation. At the time, what I could see was that, first, the role of the Koran and sacred Islamic texts was weak and faint in his works. And, secondly, that, philosophically speaking, too, his arguments were not sturdy. And, thirdly, even at the time, I felt that the element of selectivity was very strong in Shariati’s works; a ruinous selectivity.
Q. In what sense?
A. Dr Shariati would choose and adopt those elements from the history of Islam and Islamic thought that were in keeping with his aim, which was to make Islam revolutionary. I understood this point more vaguely at the time and more clearly now.
Q. Can you give us an example?
A. Yes, for example, Shariati’s master stroke was to bring to life the tale of Ashura and Imam Hussain, Zainab’s captivity and the captivity of Imam Hussain’s kith and kin, and the events of Karbala as a whole. He was, in all fairness, an expert - with a magical touch - when it came to cultivating this story and bringing Shi’is’ blood to the boil; no one has been able to surpass him in this. But the point that I think is open to criticism in all this is that Imam Hussain’s way was an exception, not the rule, among Shi’i Imams and Shariati turned this exception into the rule and a principle. If you look at Imam Ali’s way - and, according to Shi’i belief, Imam Ali was the direct inheritor of the noble Prophet of Islam’s mantle - he had a different approach to the events that occurred. In the Nahj al-Balaghah, we can see that even after the third caliph was killed and the people went to see Imam Ali, he said: “Go and find someone else for the job; it’s better if I’m a minister or an adviser than if I’m the emir or ruler.” This was Imam Ali’s way. As to Imam Hassan’s way, as you know it ultimately led to peace with Mu’awiyah. And you can see the other Imams’ ways - none of them opted for war and fighting. And even Imam Reza, for whatever reason, agreed to become Ma’mun’s heir apparent. Perhaps from the ranks of the Shi’i Imams, it was the seventh Imam who had a similar approach to Imam Hussain to some extent and he spent most of his life in Haroun al-Rashid’s prison and he ultimately died in that prison. So, from the eleven Imams on hand - we can’t speak about the Hidden Imam in this context - Imam Hussain’s way was an exceptional way in the history of the Shi’i Imams. But Shariati made a blatant selection and he wrote the history of Shi’ism in a way that no neutral historian can possibly endorse. The history of Shi’ism mustn’t be written from the perspective of Imam Hussain’s movement alone; his movement was an exception in the history of Shi’ism, not the rule. Of course, Shariati knew what he was doing. In order to construct a revolutionary Islam or to reconcile Islam with revolution, he had the utmost need for the events of Karbala; just as he had a similar need for the figure of Abu-Zarr. From the entire history of Islam, Shariati liked Abu-Zarr and he liked Imam Hussain. Of course, he also had great respect for Imam Ali and he used to weep for his aloneness. Perhaps, in Ali, with whom he shared a name, he saw a father figure who personified and embodied his feelings. This approach in Dr Shariati’s thinking made me critical of him.
Q. You mean to say that you had these criticisms at the time, when you were in Britain, and you were aware of this aspect of Dr Shariati’s thinking?
A. Yes, I had this criticism, even at the time, of his selectivity.
Q. In order to go into this in more detail, we can remind ourselves of the different sets of people who were taking critical stances towards Shariati at the time. Ayatollah Motahhari had this same criticism; i.e., selectivity and not being correctly based on our religious narratives. Then there was the Haqqani School, where Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi - of course, often much more bluntly - was describing Shariati’s perspective on religious matters as contrary to Shi’i beliefs. And these criticisms of his had stirred up some quarrels at Haqqani School. Then there was someone like Mehdi Bazargan, who, although he had a different outlook on religion from Motahhari and Mesbah-Yazdi, was not very optimistic about the authenticity of Shariati’s religious views. And the fact that he and Motahhari issued a critical statement about Shariati testified to this dissatisfaction. Which of these factions did you feel closer to at the time in your criticism of Shariati? To Mr Mesbah-Yazdi’s faction? Mr Motahhari’s? Mr Bazargan’s?
A. At the time, I was hearing some things about what Mesbah-Yazdi and Motahhari were saying, although the reports may not always have been reliable. I heard that Mehdi Bazargan’s criticism of Shariati was that he’d fallen under the spell of left-wing ideas. But I think that Dr Shariati had taken Bazargan’s course to its ultimate conclusion. But it seems that Bazargan’s course had some difficulties, which Shariati tried to solve to some extent by making Islam revolutionary. But the things that Mesbah-Yazdi was reportedly saying - and I also saw him for a brief period in London - were very different. Mesbah-Yazdi was very mistrustful and suspicious of Shariati. And he used to make angry, unsubstantiated allegations against Shariati, and considered his views to amount, more or less, to blasphemy. As for Ayatollah Motahhari’s criticisms, as we later saw plainly and explicitly, they were based on the contention that Shariati was not knowledgeable enough about Islamic teachings. But Motahhari later said some things in London that went further than a scholarly stance against Shariati. He said that Shariati was openly cooperating with SAVAK and that even his decision to go abroad was coordinated and endorsed by SAVAK. And that Shariati was weaving some plots and that, to this end, he intended to travel to other Islamic countries. These were points that I heard directly from Motahhari. Later on, I saw that Motahhari had written a letter to Mr Khomeini - quite some time before Shariati’s death - in which he said more or less the same thing, i.e., warning of a plot by Shariati. And he even expressed pleasure over Dr Shariati’s death and said that it was a kind of blessing from God. It goes without saying that I didn’t agree with this kind of criticism of Shariati, which was being made by Motahhari and Mesbah-Yazdi. But, at the opposite end, Dr Shariati had friends and supporters who did not allow the slightest criticism of him and indulged in all manner of exaggerations about him; exaggerations that Shariati himself didn’t like. And, in the midst of all this devotion and enmity, Shariati’s position and ideas were not safeguarded and understood as well as they should have been. Of course, we’re still in the throes of this predicament, until a time when all the dust has settled and Dr Shariati’s personality and works can be seen in a new light. I was and am certain that Motahhari and Mesbah-Yazdi were going too far in their assessments of Shariati, and that the signatures that they collected against Shariati among the ulema - which sadly also included the late Allameh Tabataba’i’s signature - was inappropriate and improper.
Q. Did you not speak about this to the late Tabataba’i?
A. The impression that Allameh Tabataba’i had of Dr Shariati’s works was very strange. When I saw Tabataba’i’s signature among the other signatures, I became very keen to learn exactly what his view of this whole affair was and why he was rejecting and denouncing Shariati. Tabataba’i had written that, in the book entitled Kavir, Shariati had used phrases that suggested that he was trying to stake a claim to prophethood. I was very surprised by this view. Shariati had written a poetic book and anyone who reads it understands that everything he’s saying has a metaphorical, figurative and poetic aspect. How could those writing be used to accuse Shariati of staking a false claim to prophethood?
In those heated, seditious times, any impression and any occurrence was possible. Let me add that we should weep over the living, not over the dead. The late Shariati performed his work and left this world, and criticism of him is a sign of his stature.
Q. At about the time when Dr Shariati passed away, Ayatollah Motahhari was apparently visiting London. Did he attend the ceremonies and services that were held there for Shariati?
A. Ayatollah Motahhari didn’t take part in those ceremonies and services. Allameh Tabataba’i had come to London for medical treatment about a month before Shariati died and I was acting as his interpreter. I used to take him to the doctor and to hospital and back. And, of course, it was a very happy time for me because it gave me the chance to discuss some things with him privately and to raise some questions that I had. Motahhari came to London towards the end of Allameh Tabataba’i’s stay, which coincided with the days after Shariati’s demise when a big march was held in London as a sign of respect. And an empty coffin was carried aloft through the streets followed by a huge crowd of young people, who had come from all over Europe and the United States. It was a truly exceptional and memorable image. At any rate, when Ayatollah Motahhari arrived in London and was staying at a friend’s house, I spoke to him on the phone. He told me - using precisely this phrase - “I don’t intend to surface.” And he truly didn’t surface until all the ceremonies were over. And Shaykh Shams-al-Din, the head of Lebanese Shi’is’ Supreme Council, was in London about that time. He took a message, from some of the Iranian friends who were there, to Hafiz al-Assad and, in this way, Shariati’s body was taken to Syria for burial and the commotion died down a bit. It was after that that Motahhari “surfaced”, as he put it.
Q. How did the young people and the students there receive Ayatollah Motahhari?
A. Even before he’d surfaced, so to speak, the atmosphere in London and Europe was so turbulent that it didn’t really allow people to benefit from Ayatollah Motahhari’s presence much. Far from receiving him enthusiastically, young people were even disrespectful to him on occasion. And I think that when Motahhari returned to Iran from that visit, he was more offended than happy.
Q. At the time - for example, when you spoke to him on the phone as you said - did you have an argument of any kind? Did you attack him in any way?
A. No, I didn’t argue with him because there was no room for argument and it was clear why he didn’t want to “surface”. Of course, in London, Ayatollah Motahhari had taken part in a gathering that was not looked on favourably by Islamic and revolutionary students. After he’d attended that gathering, I said a few words to him on the phone and I criticized his decision a bit. I complained to him in a friendly way although it seems that even this friendly complaint upset him, since, after returning from London, he, in turn, complained about me to Mr Haddad-Adel. When Mr Haddad-Adel told me, I responded with the following verse: Tell the tavern master, if our words have caused offence: / Bring out the goblets and we’ll be there anon to offer our apologies
Q. Can you tell us about the nature of the gathering that Ayatollah Motahhari had attended which had upset the students and led to criticism from them and from you?
A. The late Ayatollah Golpayegani had bought a venue in London which still exists. And he’d put someone in charge of it who was neither a religious scholar nor a revolutionary. I won’t mention his name now. And, of course, this venue was operating as an alternative to the Islamic association of students. Some of the students tried to inform Ayatollah Golpayegani’s office and to let him know what was going on there. I even recall that one of Ayatollah Golpayegani’s children came to London to look into things but it didn’t solve anything. So, the members of the Islamic associations of students were against that venue and didn’t take part in the sessions that were being held there. The people who did take part were mostly - for example - retired army personnel from the Shah’s regime or people for whom religiosity was just a kind of pastime. The revolutionary youngsters of the time didn’t like sessions of this kind at all and couldn’t stand them. They saw them as an insult to religion and religiosity. Bear in mind that those youngsters were mainly students or even disciples of Shariati. Their view of religion meant that they considered those sessions to be positively fraudulent and dangerous. Ayatollah Motahhari’s participation in one of those sessions was intolerable to them. I criticized him gently and conveyed the students’ message to him. I told him that they had not liked his approach. Over the phone, Motahhari replied: “I know. The youngsters are radical and make extremist judgments. In Iran, too, if I hold a meeting with Ayatollah Seyyed Ahmad Khansari, they object because they don’t consider him revolutionary, whereas every figure and every venue has its own place.” At any rate, I conveyed Motahhari’s response to the students, although they didn’t find it convincing. And, as I said, Ayatollah Motahhari was, in turn, upset by my friendly complaint.
Q. Moving on to the time after Shariati had passed away and after the Islamic revolution, to the 1980s, when speaking about Shariati and praising him were not all that easy and trouble free, you used to praise him and keep his memory alive in your talks on various occasions, on the anniversary of his death and his departure from Iran. But, later, your talks and views about Shariati took on a critical flavour and you started criticizing Shariati in his capacity as an ideological thinker. This was in circumstances in which earlier - for example, in your book entitled Satanic Ideology - you’d spoken about Islamic ideology in your rejection of Marxism and you’d set out to defend and explain Islamic ideology. I wanted to ask you how this change came about? How did it come about that you distanced yourself from ideological thinking and also started criticizing Shariati?
A. It would take quite some time to explain it all. I’ve always had and do have great respect for Shariati. In my first public talk about Dr Shariati - which, as you said, went against the grain at the time - I said at Mashhad University that he had possessed the three qualities of courage, compassion and artistry, and that these qualities had been the key to his success. I stand by that verdict to this day and my view hasn’t changed at all. But Dr Shariati, like any other human being, can be criticized and should be criticized. We always have a duty to break idols. As to why I became critical later on, there were two reasons for this. First, I arrived at this later stance through a gradual process and anyone who is a thinker has periods and stages of development in their thinking. So, in one of the stages of my thinking, I gradually came across the question of ideology. I want to say, here and now, that, at the time, I was absolutely not aware of the things that had been written in the world against ideology; I mean the things that had been said in the world specifically under the banner of “the end of ideology”. Later on, some people said: That fellow’s remarks coincided with the thesis of “the end of ideology” in the world. Maybe so, but I was absolutely not aware of that stuff. In much the same way, immediately after I wrote my theory of contraction and expansion and published it, some people said: That fellow’s theories are like Gadamer’s theories or were derived from him. Whereas, I didn’t know about Gadamer’s views at the time.
Q. Along the same lines, there are of course people who say that, after the revolution, it was first Mr Dariush Shayegan who wrote a book in French, which hasn’t been translated into Persian of course, criticizing the ideological perspective and he devoted a part of his book to criticizing Shariati and his ideological perspective. These people suggest that you may well have been influenced by that book in your criticism of Shariati. Although it has to be said that that book is hardly ever mentioned these days and Mr Shayegan’s book isn’t well known among Persian-speaking academics, even though it was the first of its kind.
A. I don’t see much point in discussing this issue at all. I’m not trying to prove that I was the first person or the last person to make this criticism. I have no such claims to being the first or the last. You can assume that dozens of people had raised this notion before me. What difference does it make whether I was the first or the second? But, in order to clarify things, let me say that, in all earnest, if anyone was influenced by the global discussion about “the end of ideology”, it was likely to have been Mr Shayegan who wrote his book in Europe and was aware of those views. Secondly, I absolutely didn’t know about Mr Shayegan’s views at the time. Most importantly, Mr Shayegan uses “ideology” in one sense and I use it in another sense. I’ve explained in my book what I mean by ideology. There may well be common points, but, at any rate, I wasn’t following the thesis of “the end of ideology” and was setting out my own views. My tale isn’t a tale of trying to prove that I’m superior or that I was the first. In the course of my thinking, I arrived at the view that what Dr Shariati was talking about was a bid to make religion ideological. And I believe that the main point, when you’re making religion ideological, is not to search for truth, but to instigate movement. And I said that, if Shariati bypasses Ibn Sina and turns his back on him and chooses to turn to Abu-Zarr, this is precisely a turning away from truth and a turning towards movement. It was at this point that both my philosophical understanding and my practical experience were telling me that making religion ideological is not a good thing to do. My practical experience consisted of what I had learnt, since the Islamic revolution, about the track record of an ideological religion in society. Two elements have had a direct impact on my thinking and approach, especially after the revolution: one is the track record of a revolutionary religion in Iranian society and, the second, my philosophical reserves, including Islamic philosophy and Western and analytical philosophy. In my treatment of Shariati, too, these two elements - practical experience and my theoretical reserves - helped me see the fissure and crack in the castle of his thinking.
Q. A while back, in a talk entitled “The Tradition of Religious Intellectualism”, you enumerated some of the characteristics of religious intellectuals which suggested a specific, structured view of a concept known as “religious intellectual”. For example, you said that religious intellectuals must not place too big a burden on religion’s shoulders, that they have to take into account that there are numerous readings of religion, that they no longer seek to extract modern ideas from religious texts today. I was wondering whether, in view of the definition that you presented in that talk, you still consider Shariati to be a religious intellectual or not?
A. Why shouldn’t we consider Shariati a religious intellectual? Of course, religious intellectuals may have different projects or opt for different routes. They may present different answers to a single question. But this doesn’t mean that they no longer fall under the umbrella and banner of religious intellectualism. Shariati cared about religion and he had an understanding of religion. He wanted to live as a Muslim in the contemporary world. And he had courage. He was not only an intellectual [rowshanfekr] but also an enlightener [rowshangar]. He was, without a doubt, a religious intellectual. But, in his day, a religious intellectual sought to reconcile Islam with revolution, and, in our day, a religious intellectual seeks to reconcile Islam with democracy. And reconciling Islam with democracy means showing how one can live as a Muslim in a democratic state and explaining the theoretical foundations for this.
Dr Shariati did not spend much time on explaining theoretical foundations. As I said, he was more interested in creating movement. Of course, you mustn’t forget that, when we criticize Dr Shariati, we don’t mean to undermine or disparage him. He was, after all, only 44 when he passed away and he did most of his work when he was under 40. It would be utterly unfair if we were to disparage his efforts. But, if we’re to find our own way, we have to have a good understanding of the routes that people were taking before us and also recognize their wrong turnings.
Q. You referred to Shariati’s age and his youth. Some of Shariati’s supporters say that his critics do not take into account the changes in his ideas over time and that they fail to consider, for example, to what stage in this process of development a particular remark by Shariati belongs. Based on this view, in the final stage of his life, for example, i.e., the period after he was last released from prison, Shariati’s ideas had undergone some changes, which are rarely taken into account. They say, for example, that, at this stage, Shariati was against intellectuals becoming involved in guerrilla activities, described revolution as premature and seriously dissociated himself from the Mojahedin-e Khalq and groups that believed in armed struggle. Whereas, Shariati’s critics ignore this change and continue to base their criticism on Shariati’s ideas before the time he spent in prison and even on his ideas when he was very young.
A. I’ve never criticized Shariati in this way myself and I have taken these things into account. The things that I’ve said have never been related to him moving closer to or further away from the Mojahedin-e Khalq anyway. It isn’t very difficult to find the main headings of Shariati’s ideas. Even if there was some opportunity for changes in his ideas, he didn’t have much success to this end, because he didn’t live very long. He was young when he died and he had little opportunity for change. In his youth, he became acquainted with our society’s ills. Then, he went to France, where, in view of the openness there, he became acquainted with Algerian militants and was influenced by Sartre’s existentialist ideas and left-wing views. Moreover, he had also been influenced as a child by his father and his family’s religious views and had become acquainted with Islam and the history of Islam. These were his mental reserves and experiences, and the changes in his ideas can be assessed within this framework. He didn’t go beyond this framework. Yes, of course, Shariati, like others - and he was much more intelligent than others - knew his environment well and learnt lessons from his experiences. It goes without saying that he did not hold fast to a particular stance in a reactionary way. But my criticism of Shariati was unrelated to these changes. Shariati’s selectivity and, for example, his treatment of Ashura and the Karbala uprising was an unchanging element of his thinking and his work. Shariati never changed his view about making religion ideological and never withdrew it. I’ve said before and will say it again: We should pursue Shariati’s path, but we shouldn’t be mere followers. We have to understand the logic of what he was doing; both its weakness and its strength. Pursuing distinguished people’s path doesn’t mean following their weaknesses.
Q. If you wanted to enumerate your differences with Shariati, what general points would you list?
A. This is a long story. I’ve said plainly and briefly somewhere that Dr Shariati was making religion corpulent, whereas I’m making it slim. Making religion corpulent was to make it ideological and raise people’s expectations of religion. But I truly try to lower people’s expectations of religion. Dr Shariati was making religion very this-worldly. He used to say that if religion doesn’t serve any purpose in this world, it won’t serve any purpose in the other world either. But I’m of the view that religion is, basically and fundamentally, for ameliorating our hereafter. If human beings faced no afterlife, they wouldn’t have a religion and God wouldn’t send them prophets. Religion’s main teachings prepare people for the afterlife. Dr Shariati wanted to put religion in the position of a constituent assembly or founding father; in other words, to extract a new ruling system out of religion. Dr Shariati, like Sayyid Qutb, equated the entire world with the system of the age of ignorance and he wanted to extract a counter-system out of Islam. I truly don’t hold such a view. I believe that we can live with religion but that we can’t use religion as a source and a reservoir for life. We can simply obtain an outlook from religion and lend life “a spirit” with the outlook; I don’t think we can lend life “a shape” with the outlook. Of course, there are other differences too. Dr Shariati didn’t care about religion’s theological and philosophical foundations; he even mocked philosophy. Of course, this may have been related to the early stages of his thought. Shariati wasn’t even particularly acquainted with Islamic mysticism, as we can see from his works. I know that he liked Rumi and he even said once: Had it not been for Rumi, there were several occasions when I would have committed suicide. He seems to have been fond of Rumi and held him in high esteem, but I can’t see Rumi’s traces in Shariati’s work. Conversely, I’m very heedful of these foundations and very sensitive to them. Let me underline again that no blame or reprimand attaches to Shariati. Neither his theoretical reserves, nor the ills of his time nor his short life allowed him to be heedful of these things.
Q. Can we not add to these differences Shariati’s socialist perspective and your liberal one?
A. Yes, you can. Of course, I don’t consider liberalism and socialism to be opposites. And this isn’t the place to discuss this issue. Liberalism is a kind of negative freedom and socialism is a kind of positive freedom. And, as you know, negative freedom isn’t at odds with positive freedom in any way. Liberalism wants to leave us free and to remove obstacles. But socialism says: Now that you’ve left us free and removed the obstacles, we want to use our freedom to build a socialist society. In a way, socialism means using negative freedom to build a system which is a kind of embodiment of positive freedom. I don’t want to offer any good advice now on whether socialism is a good system or not. Both capitalism and socialism have more or less shown what they are made of. Socialism has shown that it leads to a heartless and criminal centralism. And combining socialism with democracy is so difficult that, not just me, but almost no one knows how to achieve it. Once, when I was taking part in a seminar on democracy in Czechoslovakia about 15 years ago, I met Ernest Gellner, the famous British anthropologist. He is acquainted with Islam to some extent, as well as with analytical philosophy and sociology. We spoke together about socialism and democracy. He said some good things. First, he said: I like Mr Khomeini a great deal and I like his personality and courage, although I may not necessarily like his theories. Secondly, about socialism and democracy, he said: I like both of them but I absolutely don’t know how they can be combined and there’s no such theory yet.
I, too, have been unable to find any clear way of combining the two. Although, as an ideal, many people prefer social democracy to capitalist systems. Of course, you mustn’t forget that Dr Shariati’s writings really gave a sense of disparaging democracy. I know that some of his students don’t like it when I say this. But let me say that what we really need today, especially in Iran, is an unqualified democracy. The moment you add a qualification to it, regardless of your reason and consideration, you’ll ultimately make it ineffective. So, I absolutely don’t approve of Dr Shariati’s unkindness to democracy and I believe that we have to replace it with a serious commitment to democracy. We must defend it and we must not in any way qualify it or make it conditional. We should recognize that, with democracy, human rights and justice will also follow.
Q. But, a few years ago, you spoke about “minimal democracy” and “maximal democracy”, and you defended minimal democracy for Iran in the current circumstances. Do you mean to say that you’ve now come to the conclusion that this distinction wasn’t useful?
A. No, this distinction was something else. What I said was that, at the present time, in our society, we can talk about minimal democracy; that is to say, a democracy that isn’t accompanied by all the aspects of liberalism, but at least contains the possibility of installing and removing officials, and which allows opposition to tyranny, satisfies human rights and is even very compatible with Islamic ideas, so that it needn’t frighten any religious people. I said that we should begin with this in terms of a practical tactic and, of course, we could then take further steps.
Q. I’d like to conclude by returning to the subject we started with: Dr Ali Shariati’s death. I’d be grateful if you could tell us about your observations on that day when you saw his body.
A. I’ve spoken about this elsewhere and I’ll explain it briefly now: On the morning when we headed from London to Southampton to see Shariati, we were accompanied by Mr Minachi and another friend. We arrived in Southampton and the house at which Shariati had been staying. We saw the late Shariati’s daughters, who were dressed in black and had their backs pressed to the wall like frightened sparrows. The owner of the house was a Mr Fakouhi. I think he is related to the sociologist by the same name who lives in Iran. We went to the hospital with Mr Fakouhi. Mr Minachi and I entered the cold room and I saw Dr Shariati’s body lying in one of the many drawers that they had there. He looked very serene and there weren’t any signs of injury on his face or body. He had long hair, down to his shoulders. I had never seen Shariati looking so imposing. He looked very serene. I controlled myself but Mr Minachi was unable to hold back his tears. We left the cold room together and went back to London. Dr Shariati’s body was brought to London after the autopsy. Mr Mojtahed-Shabestari, who was the congregational prayer leader of the mosque in Hamburg, had come to London, unaware of Shariati’s demise. Once he learnt about it in London, it was decided that we would wash the late Shariati’s body together. They had laid out his body in one of London’s mosques. Mr Shabestari and I went there. Messrs Yazdi and Qotbzadeh joined us. All four of us washed the body and wrapped it in a shroud. It was placed in a coffin and we joined the crowd of mourners at the Kanoon-e Towhid.
Q. You didn’t see any suspicious markings on Shariati’s body?
A. There was no sign of a suspicious death whatsoever. Of course, our view can’t serve as evidence. They had carried out a full autopsy and it was declared in the hospital’s report that there were no signs of anything suspicious. Of course, heart attacks usually don’t leave any marks. There hadn’t been anything suspicious during the short time that Shariati had spent in Southampton either; no suspicious phone calls, no suspicious visitors, no incident that would suggest that someone had identified the house he was staying at and had some evil intention. This was why I said later that, regarding Shariati’s death, like that of Samad Behrangi and Jalal Al-e Ahmad and Mr Mostafa Khomeini, rumours abounded which were a product of the revolutionary climate before the Islamic revolution. Everyone wished to blame any big or small mistake on the Shah’s regime and what could be better and more auspicious than blaming Shariati’s death or Mostafa Khomeini’s death on SAVAK. As I recall, Ayatollah Khomeini himself said at the time that he hadn’t heard anything that would make him doubt that Mostafa had died a natural death. I imagine that Dr Shariati, too, died a natural death. He’d suffered a great deal and he smoked a lot. His secret departure from Iran was accompanied by a great deal of stress. All of this combined may well have led to him having a heart attack. God knows. At any rate, the this-worldly file of a historical individual was closed and, in the words of Iqbal of Lahore: There’s many a poet who after death / closes their eyes and opens ours
Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser
Monday, November 3, 2008
An interview with Abdulkarim Soroush